The astonishing magic of the real

‘… they trade simultaneously on the prestige of art and the magic of the real. They are clouds of fantasy and pellets of information.’
Susan Sontag
On photography 1977

‘Always the Photograph astonishes me, with an astonishment which endures and renews itself, inexhaustibly.’
Roland Barthes
Camera Lucida: Reflections on photography 1980

The process of photography, now involving no alchemy, is no longer itself magical. Taking a photograph is no longer a special occasion. Photography now accompanies our lives like toothpaste and underwear. ‘Recently,’ Susan Sontag wrote in 1977, ‘photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing’. Photography, I think it can safely be said, has now far outstripped both. The taking of a photograph no longer distinguishes a moment in life from another by virtue of its being taken. At what point does a photographic portrait depart from plain reality, from simply being evidence of daily existence, a family photo, a holiday snap, an Instagram photo? What takes a photographic portrait beyond the descriptive, nostalgic or sentimental? How can a photographic portrait move the viewer out of the now and then, the here and there, in an era when photography is so much part of our everyday, individual, ordinary lives?

The National Photographic Portrait Prize 2016 exhibition suggests the answer is – when the photograph understands reality’s magic, sweeps you up in clouds of fantasy, when it astonishes. Every commentary has a different way of expressing this same quality: For André Bazin, it is ‘like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty’. For Roland Barthes, ‘a photograph’s punctum’ is ‘that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’. He also calls it an adventure: ‘the photograph itself is in no way animated (I do not believe in “life-life” photographs), but it animates me; ‘this is what creates every adventure.’

The magic of the real is alive in these 49 portraits. They sweep you up in clouds of fantasy to collect pellets of information on life’s quest. It is a gentle, joyful and astonishing adventure. In the narratives of classic literature and cinema, often the great adventure full of peril ends in a return to the everyday world in which the hero is now able to see what was there all along: Dorothy longs to go over the rainbow, does, has a dangerous adventure defeating foes and making friends along the way, and then wakes up in Kansas, only knowing then that ‘there’s no place like home’. These portraits embody the spirit of those moments, that realisation. They propel you into another world, then bring you back again with a heightened awareness of the important, intangible things in life – affection, belonging, self-knowledge, connectedness. This is where the magic, fantasy and ever-renewing astonishment reside.

Children know that a thrilling adventure is made with basic materials and minimal construction: up a tree, under sheets draped over a table, or in a cardboard box. In Elizabeth Looker’s Life dancers, the protagonist fans out her beautiful dress with a naked little imp about to scale the umbrella tree from which she effortlessly hangs. They could be an illustration from any fairytale, but her pursed lips, dark eyes, the cool of the trees and sun on the picket fence are startlingly real. In Jennifer Stocks’ Free range cousins, the paddocks and hills, with the telegraph pole poking up on the horizon, take on a strange potential for adventure – any forced sentimental reflection on her subjects’ potential as adults is refreshingly absent. A pretty formidable band; the tall pensive chap in the centre, the character lunging forward, Batman, and the girl’s smile on the right draw us into their reality.

Several of the portraits disturb children’s living fiction, but convey an uncomplicated acceptance of fantasy’s tangible existence. ‘When grown-ups draw nigh’, Jean Cocteau wrote in Les enfants terribles, children have a way of ‘conjuring themselves at will an instantaneous coat of bristles or assuming the bland passivity of some form of plant life’. In Boys and their cars by Lisa Ivandich, Cliffy by Rhett Hammerton and Natalie Grono’s portrait of Isla and Elki, the photographers capture this slight bristling and hint of passivity. The children appear as would artists in studios or directors in boardrooms: the shadows of the princess-sisters’ crowns dance against the wall of a castle, Jayden and Sawyer’s winning cars glint in the sun by the side of the racetrack and five-year-old Gawukdhun Dhamarrandji pauses, hands jammed under his armpits, in his sandy, muddy quest for latjin – mangrove worms. They are statements of belonging rather than allegories of innocence.

Magic pauses time: going into the wardrobe, up the faraway tree or down the rabbit hole, the heroes come back just where they left off, without time having passed. In timeless beauty, New Zealand-born rising star Marlon Williams captured by Dean Golja could have been holding that guitar behind those bars of bright light since the 1930s. Photographer Freya Paley’s daughter Sophia and her cat Soft could have been snoozing in that Australian pictorialist morning sun for a century. Aaron Smith’s portrait of Kurt Coleman, ‘selfie-made’ social media celebrity, hovers out-of-time, slumped and folded in quiet introspection. In this weird hotel-room-like space, with wall-ducks, bathed in the real glow of a sunset, the TV camera looms like a war-of-the-worlds alien. Anyone can pause in the midst of a life, stop time, sleep and dream or reflect. ‘How long is forever?’ Alice asks the White Rabbit. ‘Sometimes, just one second’ he replies.

It is never long into an adventure in a strange world before its logic is accepted and becomes second-nature. In a dreamlike but constructed tableau-vivant, Marzena Wasikowska portrays her family engulfed in a seemingly sudden, incongruous quietness within an ambiguous narrative – her sitters both intimately connected and oddly distant. Ella Rubeli’s King Kamanda creates a similar atmosphere, energised by the co-existence of the accidental and deliberate, separate and linked. Poised in precarious asymmetry, every element contributes to Reece McMillan’s The first meal appearing out-of-this-world: the salmon-tangerine colour of the check on his suit, the stools behind and the canapés; her little finger cocked out on the champagne glass. The stormy sky heightens the colours and strangeness of the vans and rides in the agricultural show’s sideshow alley, where young bull-riders Dusty and Jed stand for Louise Whelan to take their photo. Astonishingly, the wedding and showground portraits are not fantasies, just real people doing their thing. Many moments in life seem otherworldly – particularly those of intense feeling: affection, belonging and connectedness.

To the young hero, the elderly life-worn mentor is an inspiration that lets them embrace adventure – and to realise where it took them. In Nobby looking back, Carol Elvin’s 87-year-old father-in-law appears to leave a clear path behind as the grass grows in front of him – a lovely metaphor for wisdom, ageing and living. In Katherine Griffiths’ portrait of Olga, a Holocaust survivor, she wears a beautiful dress, a smile and her grey hair neatly brushed into a heart shape. Yet she holds an object of heartrending, latent violence: a blanket ‘woven using the hair of Jewish prisoners who had their heads shaven as they entered Auschwitz … [that] covered Olga’s skeletal frame on the day of liberation.’ These photographers warmly convey the magic of having a Gandalf-like presence in your journey through life.

The inanimate comes to life, animals can think, humans take on animal-like aspects and go where the wild things are in the portraits by Joshua Morris, John McRae, Janet Tavener, Robert Hague, Matthew Newton and Melissa Osborn. The clock, assemblage of cricket balls, basketball hoop and drum kit quietly watch Shogun as he pauses in the warm light. The Imperial Hotel embraces its spectacular friends like a tall, old, caring colleague on retirement. Printmaker Rew Hanks is a bowerbird among his treasures; painter Ben Aitken peers back warily as a bandicoot from a burrow. On rocky, forbidding Albatross Island, Dr Rachael Alderman, her eyes closed, becomes as one with the bird she holds. The bird’s eye is open; the mirrored forms of nose and beak, elbow and wing transform both creatures. A plane hangs in the blue sky as Lulu and Bas play in the Queensland sun under the guard of Henri, statuesque and commanding – a dog that would keep them safe on any quest. In James Geer’s portrait of Neato with Daniel and Ralph Whitten’s Luis and Finn – two scruffy buddies, dogs are crucial companions on life’s adventures – invested with all the special understanding of Toto, K9 or Lassie. These portraits invite us to recognise the compelling power of comfort and affection.

The encounter of others inhabiting a magical world is always a crucial part of the journey: self-knowledge increases as affection grows for these beings. Some will give nothing away when we encounter them. ‘Photographers working in the deadpan aesthetic’ select, according to Charlotte Cotton in Photography as contemporary art, ‘the most simple and neutral stance’ so that ‘we feel our relationship to the people portrayed is direct and that as we look at them, they look back at us.’ Several portraits present this direct gaze while, simultaneously, colour, pattern and form thrust their subjects into the realm of the imagination. Nicola Dracoulis sees the spots of Fostin’s jacket picked up in the beads around his wrist and the pattern under the brim of his hat, his pendant sitting to the side; Brett Canet-Gibson’s sitter Tiffany Toovey vanishes into the background, a deadpan Cheshire cat with an Alice in Wonderland tattoo sleeve; and Jordie’s skin matches the patched, unpainted parts of the white walls that in turn match the white wash of the surf in the bright sun. These portraits confront us with the importance of connecting with another’s consciousness.

Seeing their portrait sitters in moments of enchantment amidst life’s ordinary disorder are photographers Jacinta Short, Stephanie Simcox, Lynette Letic, Sean Davey, Anna Sinclair and John Tsiavis. The cool, even light on the textures of Sage’s hair, woollen jumper and the conifers behind her; the sunrise on Eva’s hair, chin and the filthy flyscreen of the baths; Catherine’s round eyes shining out against knotted wooden wall: these young women become Elphin beings. Asha, resting on top of North Brother Mountain, appears in the texture of the grass, with the folds of her white shirt and the tiny speck of her earring, as herself a ‘phenomenon in nature’. Against the patterns of floorboards, mattress-stitching, clothes-rack rails and clothes-basket-holes in a Surry Hills room, nine-year-old Ayesha materialises in the sunlight for Anna Sinclair. Arranged against intense colour, costumed and strangely-heroically posed, photographer John Tsiavis pays tribute to Polly Borland’s sorcery as a photographer.

We can never know another’s mind, and often not even our own, but these portraits have a little of that fantastic power: ‘A portrait can only be unconscious,’ said filmmaker Jean Renoir. These portraits force us to acknowledge the thoughts and dreams of portrait subjects such as Rowan Thomas, who plays backline for the Bidyadanga Emus in the Kimberley, by Graham Caughley; blues musician Shaun by Ben McNamara; William in a portrait by his mother Sandra Lamonaca, and Charlotte in a portrait by her father Michael Miller. Rod McNicol’s self portrait presents a clear-sighted self-awareness with his neat strands of white moustache, lines of skin, stripes of jumper and background woven fabric. Liam James’ self portrait depicts his consciousness of identity in patterns of red – knuckles, nose, lips, and gripping the flowers like a nervous bride. Once all the dragons are fought, cliffs scaled and ravines crossed, the world’s great stories tell us that the real victories are almost always found in greater understanding of the self or others.

The National Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition for 2016 is a quiet revelation and a subtle revolution. Wouldn’t portraits reflecting the part of the adventure that is full of peril be more relevant and exciting? ‘True fascination arises from what perplexes us, not what confronts us,’ writes Paul Ardenne in Face to Face. Roland Barthes considered that ‘Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens … but when it is pensive, when it thinks’. Anger, grief and heartache undoubtedly transform lives, but these portraits demonstrate that calm and imagination transform the world in which lives are lived. The world of cubbies as castles is still the same world we inhabit when we grow up. Fantasy, imagination, myth-making, narrative and emotional ritual bring us closer to the realities of life that are beyond our conscious comprehension. This year, the National Photographic Portrait Prize takes you on an adventure in the astonishing otherworldliness of everyday magic.

Penny Grist, Curator, National Portrait Gallery and judge National Photographic Portrait Prize 2016